What can Philosophy of Religion Contribute to the University?

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Here at PhilosophyOfReligion.org, we are asking philosophers of religion to tell us what philosophy of religion can contribute to the modern university, considered either as a whole or through the lens of one or more university disciplines. Our blog is full of fascinating contributions of this kind.

Last year we witnessed a fabulous response to our challenge to look inwards and say what our field is and does, and we’ll soon present our analysis of those creative blog contributions. This year we are looking outwards as well as inwards, asking philosophers of religion to tell us how our field can impact the university or specific university disciplines.

For this theme, as for last year’s theme, we prefer to ask and listen rather than stipulate and define; it’s how we live up to our intention to speak for the entire unruly world of philosophy of religion. Ultimately we hope to analyze the themes in these blog entries and present our findings to you.

So read the blog entries and learn about philosophy of religion in the modern university from the experts who work in the field.

Wesley J. Wildman is a philosopher of religion working at Boston University, and founder of PhilosophyOfReligion.org.

Eric Steinhart on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Eric Steinhart

Eric Steinhart is Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of religion evolved out of the religions of the first Axial Age. At least in the West, it has evolved into reasoning for or against Abrahamic theism, mainly Christianity. But religion is changing rapidly, and we may even be in a second Axial Age. As religion evolves away from its past into the future, philosophy of religion will evolve with it. Thinkers like Schellenberg have pointed to this futurity.

Although philosophy has long been dominated by white men with European roots, it is growing more diverse. It is easy to imagine a future in which Hispanic philosophers write analytically about Santeria. Perhaps the indigenous peoples of the Americas will use modal logic to study the visions they get from ayahuasca or peyote. As more women do philosophy, they may leave the Abrahamic traditions. Women may lead the way in developing new religions, and new ways of reasoning about them.

But the data point to deeper changes. If the ARIS 2013 survey is right, then only one third of American college students are theists. Another third are irreligious or secular, while the final third is spiritual but not theistic. Similar surveys, done by Pew in the US, show young people rapidly rejecting the Abrahamic traditions. Religions are born; they mutate; and they can go extinct. To paraphrase Foucault, the Abrahamic deity may vanish “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea”. New generations of nontheists will become spiritual, and religious, and they will philosophize.

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Stanley Tweyman on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”, part 1

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Stanley Tweyman

Stanley Tweyman is Professor of Philosophy at York University, Canada. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophers have traditionally held that there are three ways to attempt to gain knowledge of God – through revelation, through reason (e.g. the Ontological Proof), and through Nature (e.g. through Natural Religion).In this essay, I want to point to a fourth way, which has not been widely recognized, namely, the proof put forth by Rene Descartes in his third meditation.[1]

In the Replies to the Second Set of Objections, Descartes informs us that the aim of his Meditations on First Philosophy is to provide the first principles of human knowledge, i.e. what must be known before anything else can be known. Because these principles are first principles, they cannot be established deductively, but rather they are self-evident, and must, therefore, be grasped through intuition. In the Replies to the Second Set of Objections and elsewhere, Descartes urges that there are two requirements in order to enable us to intuit these first principles – the first is the removal of all sensory prejudice (the influence of the senses), and the second is that we give full attention to what Descartes has written in his Meditations to guide us to the relevant innate ideas, through which these first principles can be intuited. In his third meditation, Descartes maintains that before anything can be known, he must know that God created his mind, and that God is not a deceiver. Given that, at this stage, he does not know anything beyond his existence as a thinking thing, Descartes attempts to establish what he needs to know about God through the innate idea he has of God.

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Donald Blakeley on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Donald Blakeley

Donald Blakeley is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Fresno. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The question “What is philosophy of religion?” invites reflection on the nature of philosophy as well as religion. I will suppose that philosophy includes analytic concerns (logic, conceptual analysis, functions of language) and constructive (speculative, systematic) concerns (metaphysics, epistemology, value theory). The two have been combined historically, although the speculative part has for some time come under criticism for attempting to deal with matters best handled by scientific disciplines.

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Felix Ó Murchadha on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Felix Ó Murchadha

Felix Ó Murchadha is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Galway. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Any answer to the question, what is the philosophy of religion, will depend implicitly at least on how philosophy is understood. To me philosophy is the radical questioning of everything, including and especially itself. To practice philosophy is to be uncertain whether one is actually doing philosophy at all. This is a highly paradoxical situation to be in! With respect to religion what this means is that a philosopher does not come with a ready-made tool kit to investigate religion, anymore than she does with respect to art, science or anything else. The philosophical engagement with religion is one which seeks to allow religion to speak to it, in a manner which is challenging and fruitful – but challenging and fruitful to philosophy not to religion. As a philosopher I don’t see myself as having any responsibilities to religious people or communities, neither in the sense of respecting their sensibilities nor in the sense of critically challenging them. So philosophy of religion is in that sense not about religion at all, it is about what if anything religion can tell us or challenge us regarding the practice of philosophy.

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Ilaria Ramelli on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Ilaria Ramelli

Ilaria L.E. Ramelli is Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Italy. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of Religion is the branch of Philosophy that investigates Religion, and religions, philosophically. Thus, it is a philosophical discipline—the philosophical discipline that comes closest to theology (albeit rigorously from within Philosophy), after Philosophy and Theology have become two distinct sciences, with different methodologies and objects, in our post-Kantian philosophical culture. In antiquity and late antiquity, however, the two were not distinct: theology itself was a philosophical discipline, arguably the highest part of philosophy, the peak. The study of divinity was the culmination of philosophy.

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Nicholas Rescher on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Nicholas Rescher

Nicholas Rescher is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

The philosophy of religion is a domain of intimidating magnitude. The whole of the space available for the present discussion could be filled with questions belonging to the field. What is a religion? What sorts of religions are possible? What is it to have or to belong to a religion? Why it is that people should (or perhaps even need) to belong to a religion? Is having a religion a matter purely of accepting beliefs or are behavioral ramifications (such as prayer or ritual) necessary? Can the existence of God be demonstrable?—And if not, can belief in God possibly be validated by other, non-demonstrative means? The list goes on and on.

Being a religious person is no prerequisite for a philosopher of religion. There are a great many theoretical issues regarding religious matters about which an atheist can ably deliberate. (One interesting example is the hypothetical question: “What sort of God, if any, would a reasonable person want to have if they could have their own way in the matter—and just why this particular sort?”) Nor, contrawise, need a committed believer necessarily engage with philosophical issues arising in this sphere. (Rustic faith is nowise illegitimate.) With religion as with other human enterprises, the relationship between the venture itself and its philosophical ramifications can be complex. Even—and indeed especially—atheism occupies a place in the spectrum of alternative philosophy-of-religion positions.

But why take a stance one way or the other on religious issues? Continue reading

Leigh Vicens on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Leigh Vicens

Leigh Vicens is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Augustana College. We invited her to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Since I teach philosophy within a religion department at a Lutheran college, where many students study Christian theology as well as world religions before taking my class in philosophy of religion, I find it helpful to begin the semester by discussing how what we will be doing together in that class differs from what they may have done in other classes before.

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David McNaughton on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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David McNaughton

David McNaughton is Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Is there such a subject as philosophy of religion? The answer to this question is not as obvious as it might seem. I am not, of course, claiming that there is something improper about claiming expertise in this area on your CV. What I question is whether the very disparate practices, attitudes, and beliefs that come under the heading of ‘religion’ have sufficient coherence to count as a unified topic for enquiry of any kind, whether philosophical, sociological, psychological, historical, or some mixture thereof. If I am right then, though there are many interesting specific questions that can be raised within the field traditionally called philosophy of religion, there is no topic or question common to all these enquiries in this area because the notion of religion itself lacks any unifying theme.

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Jack Mulder on “What is Philosophy of Religion?”

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Jack Mulder

Jack Mulder is Professor of Philosophy at Hope College. We invited him to answer the question “What is Philosophy of Religion?” as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

Philosophy of Religion is a fascinating area in the study of philosophy. Part of the reason it is so interesting is that it can encompass philosophy theology, philosophical a-theology, and philosophical inquiry into the meaningfulness of those very categories. Let me try to explain.

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